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Forgotten history; 80th anniversary of the day Santa Barbara County was shelled by a Japanese sub

California State Historical Museum
Artist rendering of the February 23, 1942 shelling of oil facilities in Santa Barbara County by a Japanese submarine.

February 23, 1942 attack on Ellwood was the first attack on the Continental United States during World War II.

It was an event which shocked, and stunned California, especially people on the Central and South Coasts. It was the day World War II hit home in the region.

February 23, 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of Santa Barbara County being shelled by a Japanese submarine. It was the first time the Continental United States had been attacked by a foreign power in more than a century.

But, most people don’t know about this forgotten piece of history. It was the early days of World War II. A Japanese sub surfaced and shelled an oil facility near Goleta.

"I think most people are certainly aware of Pearl Harbor because of the immense devastation, and loss of life, but this is our California Coast, this is the United States," said Neal Graffy.

Talking about the shelling, the Santa Barbara historian said America was still in shock over the attack on Pearl Harbor a few weeks earlier. People around the country, and on the Central and South Coasts were listening to a radio address by the President when the sub surfaced from the ocean just west of Goleta.

"The submarine surfaces at around 7 p.m., as the President starts speaking, and about ten minutes later it begins firing shells at the oil fields," said Graffy.

The sub was the I-17. The 360 foot long sub was one of several deployed along the West Coast by the Japanese Navy to attack shipping, and to shell targets with their deck guns along the coast if the opportunity arose.

Graffy says the sub missed refinery facilities with its first shots. It then shifted fire to a huge petroleum tank, but fortunately missed that too. But, then ship’s crew finally hit something.

"The worst damage they did...they hit one of the structures on one of the oil piers. They did about $500 in damage," said Graffy.

No one was hurt. But, the attack caused fear, and panic on the West Coast.

"It was horrific," said the historian. "With ease, a Japanese sub has surfaced, and lobbed shells at us." Some people feared this might be the precursor to an invasion, which of course never happened.

There were also reports that spies had been signaling to the ship from the Santa Ynez Mountains. People reported seeing flashing lights. But, there was never evidence to back the claims. Years later, the Santa Barbara historian solved the mystery during a conversation with a longtime rancher.

JJ Hollister's family owned ranch land in the mountains behind the oil facilities. Hollister said when the shelling started, he and his father drove around the property to check for damage. He later realized as they went up and down the windy mountain road, to people in Goleta it looked like someone might be signaling the sub.

The full story behind the I-17’s mission remains a mystery. The sub was sunk in combat in 1943, and only a handful of its crew members survived.

Eight decades later, Graffy says he’s still investigating some details, like how many shots were actually fired.

But, some rare artifacts from the attack exist in local museums. The Santa Barbara Carriage Museum has a fully intact, but defused shell on display. And, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has a special display on the attack, with photos and some artifacts.

There’s also some markers at the scene of the attack, which is now the Sandpiper Golf Course.

A plaque commemorating the February 23, 1942 attack on Ellwood.

Wednesday night, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum is presenting a special zoom lecture with Neal Graffy about the historic day. It’s called “They Came, They Saw, They Shelled,” and will feature a full account of the attack, and its aftermath. The 5 p.m. event is free, but you must pre-register.